Everyone knows Hannibal Lecter. Undoubtedly one of the greatest (if not the best) fictional villains of all time, Hannibal the Cannibal and his unique brand of charming evil has become a classic element of pop culture. Even if you haven't watched the brilliant Silence of the Lambs, it's a safe bet you've heard him quoted somewhere. He's an incredible creation: a flesh-eating monster who is disarmingly elegant and charming, a character who dares you to not like him, or to not be fascinated by him. It's all fancy wines and truffles until you remember that he eats people. But don't worry, it's mostly bad people he eats. Or at least that's what Thomas Harris wants you to remember.
Hannibal is the third book of the Lecter series, taking place seven years after the events recorded in Silence of the Lambs. Lecter has escaped and for seven years has eluded capture, traipsing around the world, reveling in the inability of the authorities to recapture him. He's finally settled in Florence, with an altered face and a high-class job as a museum scholar, cultivating his elegant tastes and not worrying about a thing. But plenty of people are still thinking about him, and he is still obsessed with FBI agent Clarice Starling. Disturbingly obsessed, of course.
We learn that Mason Verger, a millionaire who was disfigured and paralyzed by Lecter years ago, has spent millions trying to hunt him down, and he has managed to track him down to Florence. There, he buys off a corrupt cop to track Lecter down and bring him alive to the US where Verger can carry out his revenge. Through all this, Clarice Starling is also trying to track down Lecter, after receiving a letter from him following a botched FBI operation. She's mostly pushed into the background, however, serving only as a way to bring out Lecter and making every other character look horrible. She's about the only decent character, which is where the book lost me.
See, the plot is good. It's one long chase scene, tense and frightening, though disturbingly graphic in parts. Lecter keeps slipping away, Verger becomes more brutal, everyone else keeps screwing things up.
But Harris' characters are lousy, and the way he tries to manipulate the reader's feelings is intrusive and not subtle at all. His own love for the character of Lecter is obvious, and he wants you to fall in love with him as well. Lecter is portrayed as the perfect gentleman, a sophisticated snob who wants to lead a quiet life of indulging in expensive tastes, only a victim of corrupt people who don't want to let him be free. He just happens to be a completely remorseless monster (Harris calls him a monster repeatedly, but it's almost like he doesn't mean it) who kills time and time again in increasingly repulsive ways. But Harris wants you to forget that, by making every character who is after Lecter (except Clarice) a horrible excuse for a human being. Every other character is corrupt, dirty, psychotic or deeply disturbed, petty and vengeful. Everyone (but Clarice) can be bought. And it's just too damn easy, because by making every character unlikeable, Lecter looks positively saintly, which is exactly what he wants you to think. He's trying to make you feel conflicted, but the way he goes about it is clumsy and cheap, and his tricks of manipulation are so transparent that they just didn't work for me. It's like he's going "ha-ha! see what I did? You like a monster!" and winking at you. But it didn't work for me. It just made me hate everyone in this book.
Even Clarice Starling, who was such an outstanding heroine in Silence of the Lambs (the movie at least, I haven't read the book), is given little personality outside of how Lecter sees her. Harris paints her only as a disturbed psychological patient of Lecter's, who is thrown around by every male character with power. She's not exactly helpless, but she's far from an interesting character here. And there are only three other female characters in the book; a robber, a disturbed lesbian (Verger's sister) and Clarice's roommate, who is largely useless. Harris just doesn't seem to value women very much.
And then there's the ending. Oh, lord, the ending. I won't spoil it, but let me just say that I was so angry and disturbed by it that I almost gagged. I don't know what Harris was going for here, but I doubt it was disgust at his book. He romanticizes Lecter to a seriously disturbing degree, and the ending just left me feeling dirty, wondering what the hell was wrong with this author. If the rest of the book doesn't turn you off, the ending surely will.
It's a shame, really. Harris is a good writer, with an intellectual voice that works well with his subject. Unfortunately, the book is weakened by cheap manipulation and bad characters, not to mention disturbingly graphic scenes that seem right out of a torture-porn movie. Hannibal Lecter is still a great villain, but I would've been happier not knowing anything more about him after Silence of the Lambs. The book just doesn't work.
One last thing. For the love of everything holy, don't watch the movie. Stay far, far away from it.